MALAKAL, South Sudan — Everyone in the displacement camp had an address. Rachael Mayik’s was Sector 1, Block G. She lived in a white, seven-person tent deep inside a maze of other white tents, one dot amid the sea of people who had run here for their lives.
No matter how many times my colleague Jane Hahn and I visited Mayik, we could never find her tent without getting lost. And so getting lost, wandering through muddy alleys and into spare, makeshift huts, became our introduction to the United Nations’ Protection of Civilians site here, population 32,791. It was a city within the city of Malakal, a refuge for people driven from their homes in one of Africa’s bloodiest wars.
One morning, we stumbled into a small tent where a group of women were praying. They began singing a hymn, a quiet, meditative song led by an older, stone-faced woman. Then the prayer grew louder and angrier. One woman fell to the ground, crying. Then another. Soon the room was consumed by screaming and wailing.
Was it an expression of what it feels like to live here, behind U.N. razor wire, hiding from your enemies but still vulnerable to another attack? Even prayer here could feel like a weapon of blunt force.
Another time, we found a group of young men getting drunk on homemade beer. They were sitting near the edge of the camp, which is surrounded by seemingly endless grassland, a vast electric green.
They passed around a bowl of the sour drink.
“The fighting is back, and we are ready to fight,” one young man said.
He pointed beyond the fence ostensibly separating him from armed combatants.
“Our guns are out there,” he said.
The camp’s residents had fled their homes after war broke out in late 2013 between the forces of President Salva Kiir and those of Vice President Riek Machar. Tens of thousands of people were killed in what became an ethnically driven conflict. There were hopes that the violence would end when a peace agreement was signed last August. But fighting broke out last month in the capital, Juba, and everyone expected it to spread.
One morning, when it seemed unavoidable that the violence would converge on the camp, we were lost again. I looked for signs of people preparing to protect themselves. But even when the site seemed as if it was on the verge of collapse, there were moments of eerie calm.
A teenager in a Dallas Cowboys hat sat on a bench and cut his fingernails. Children played tug of war with a piece of fishing net. A man parked his truck near a small outdoor market. Above the windshield, someone had painted the words “New Sudan.”
That was the camp: a city condensed into a muddy field, where desperation and anger and violence and perseverance swirled around one another. Depending on which corner you turned, or which tent you entered, you could find any of those things, one small fragment of this refuge that is hardly a refuge, at the center of an intractable war.